The Bordeaux Wine Region

Bordeaux Wine Tours

Bordeaux Wine Tours

Largest wine-producing region in France – 15% of national production, roughly 900 million bottles
  • 7375 wine-producing entities (chateaux) covering 120,000 ha
  • Mostly big estates: 70% of all vineyards bigger than 20 ha
  • 70% of production sells between €3 and €15
  • 90% blended reds; 9% dry and sweet whites
  • Plantation of red grapes: Merlot 62%; Cabernet Sauvignon 25%; Cabernet Franc 12%
  • Plantation of white grapes: Semillon 54%; Sauvignon Blanc 36%; Muscadelle 7%

And if you want to know more…
‘Bordeaux’ is probably the most well-known name in the wine world. Given its size, long history and significant exports this is hardly surprising. Its enduring influence is also of course based on quality – but here is where the buyer should beware. By the law of averages, such a massive production contains wines ranging from the sublime to the (kind-of) ridiculous, with a whole lot of middling in between. The Bordeaux wine trade has always attracted hard-nosed businessmen, so approach with finely-tuned taste buds and eyes closed to the label.

The Romans got the grape growing ball rolling, but it was the Brits who firmly established Bordeaux as a major player. When Henry Plantagenet married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 she came with the not insignificant dowry of most of the west of France. Henry became king of England in 1154 and for 300 years the Crown colony (in effect) of Bordeaux cemented its relationship with the UK by massive exports of wine made all the more attractive by export tax exemption. That the French regained its territory in 1453 did little or nothing to dent the UK love affair with ‘claret’ that exists to this day. Worth noting that, unlike many other French wine regions, the monasteries played no part in Bordeaux’s development: this was buccaneer country.
Médoc – the left bank
When most people think of Bordeaux, this is where they’re thinking of, at least subliminally; the home of the big names – Lafite, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild … and so on. It’s a rather dreary landscape running some 70 kms along the left bank of the Gironde estuary north-west of Bordeaux city. It’s an invented terroir, created out of salt-marshes by the Dutch and their drainage know-how in the mid-17th century. All reds, the blends are biased towards Cabernet Sauvignon, giving the wine severity (‘backbone’ is an oft-used noun) and staying power, mixed in with Merlot adding fruity softness. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot play minor roles. Mostly large estates surrounding a chateau, a good number of them these days owned by insurance companies, banks, and the like.
St Emilion and Pomerol – the right bank
This area’s wine-making history is way longer than the Médoc, stretching back to the Middle Ages. Unlike the Médoc with its grand estates, the right bank is home to 400 or so smallholdings with an average size of just 5 hectares. Everything feels smaller scale and homelier on this side (yet overall production is roughly equal to the Médoc). Principal grape varieties are Merlot and Cabernet Franc giving earlier maturing and more feminine wines than the Médoc. The hilltop medieval village of St Emilion is a delight, except in July/August when the tourists invade.
World famous area for its production of sweet (dessert) wine. About 50kms south of Bordeaux city, the mainly small chateaux (only a handful are over 20ha) cluster close to the Gironde and Ciron rivers. The confluence of these rivers produces mist on autumn mornings (when the grapes are already ripe) which is burnt off by afternoon sun – the ideal conditions for provoking ‘noble rot’, a fungus which dehydrates the grape and concentrates sugars. Grape varieties are Semillon (rich texture and exotic aromas), Sauvignon Blanc (acidity, very important as the best Sauternes is not cloying) and some Muscadelle. Drink with Asian cuisine, foie gras, salty cheese – not dessert, as sweet + sweet doesn’t work. But as a dessert on its own? You decadent devil.
Entre-Deux-Mers, Cotes de Bourg, Blaye
Lesser known areas, but producing between them large amounts of value for money reds and whites. Entre-Deux-Mers (literally ‘between two seas’ but actually between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers) produces light reds marketed as Bordeaux AOC, but is best known for its dry whites. Cotes de Bourg provides quaffable, predominantly Merlot-based reds, as does Blaye which also produces very interesting dry whites.
Most regions have some way of classifying their wines, but Bordeaux has taken it to the nth degree. The granddaddy of them all was the 1855 classification of the Médoc (and one Graves chateau, Haut-Brion), grading 60 chateaux from First to Fifth Growth. An anachronism which is set in stone and isn’t going to change. Let it sleep, and tiptoe away. Also from 1855 and similarly immobile is the classification of Sauternes-Barsac. St Emilion got into the act in 1955, with 4 Premiers Grand Crus Classés A; 14 Classés B; and a whole bunch of Grand Crus Classés. This is the current arrangement as the classification is actually reviewed every ten years or so. Cue accusations of skulduggery and political bias from those who don’t get the promotion they think they deserve or – horror – get demoted. Great fun for us rubbernecks. Graves was classified in 1959 into reds and whites – pretty meaningless actually. Pomerol has never been classified, which gives its most famous resident, Petrus, an air of mystery to go with its humungous price tag.

Bordeaux Cite de Vin
Cote de Blaye Vineyards
Vineyards of St Emilion

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For more information or to arrange your next tour with French Wine Tours, call John Sherwin on +33 (0)7 50 90 02 00
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